war on the rocks

Joining the Military? Here’s the Best Advice I Can Give You

August 13, 2015

Editor’s note: While we publish articles anonymously very infrequently, we must do so in this case due to the author’s current duty assignment.


I’m a field grade officer with 24 years of service. I am an Old Soldier. And I have some advice for those with aspirations of military service. If you’re considering joining the military, please read this. If you know somebody who is, please send it along. Because this is one of the best pieces of advice I can offer, as an Old Soldier to future soldiers: Go to every school you can and get qualified to do anything you can.

Let me explain by beginning with an Old Soldier’s regret. I enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private (E-1) in May 1991 and was trained as an infantryman. During the AIT (Advanced Individual Training) phase of OSUT (One Station Unit Training) at Ft. Benning, Georgia, one of the drill sergeants took me and another troop aside. He handed us paperwork to ensure our next duty station would be the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Ft. Lewis, Washington — after attending RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program) and then Ranger School. It was an unusual path and out of simple fear of the deprivations involved, I declined.

Years later, I had become a commissioned officer after receiving my 4-year degree, and was sent to four months of IOBC (Infantry Officer Basic Course), again at Ft. Benning. At the time, I was a new father and had left my wife and child behind to attend the course. Toward the end of IOBC, I was asked again to attend Ranger School, which would have meant another two months away from the family, at least. I was in phenomenal physical shape at the time and barring any injuries, I would have completed the course without issue. This was years before 9-11, before multiple deployments had made so much time away from loved ones the norm, so I decided to decline, yet again, and return to my young family instead.

I hadn’t intended on staying in the Army. In fact, for many years, I really didn’t enjoy it; I suppose I simply forgot to get out. Several years ago, I came to the realization that I actually love what I do, but it was too late to go back and test my mettle against the crucible of that school. Since then, my career had been made more challenging as an infantry officer and later in special operations, simply because I was being compared to those wearing the coveted Ranger Tab standing next to me. My performance had to be a bit better and my results a little more obvious.

So, my advice to you young and future warriors is to get qualified to do as many things as you can, as early as you can. If you can become a paratrooper, go get that badge. If they will send you to Air Assault School, DO IT. Mountain Warfare Course? GO! Ranger? GO!! While you’re young, these things are a lot easier and believe me when I say you will kick yourself in regret later on if you don’t take the opportunities when they arise early in your career. This isn’t just because of the gung-ho nature of some of these courses, though that’s a bit of it. If an opportunity finds its way into your lap, understand that they are rare, and you must seize them to benefit your future in ways you likely don’t yet understand as a new recruit. This is true even if you don’t plan to make the military your career. Remember, our ranks are full of senior officers and NCOs who didn’t plan to stay in.

Why is earning qualifications important? For one thing, these courses are each worth points toward promotions. Points you’ll really have to fight for later. Promotions mean better pay, more privileges, better jobs, more opportunities, more freedom of assignment choice, and many other benefits rank has to offer down the line. These chances are most abundant when you first come in to the military — exactly when servicemembers are least likely to be aware of them and their importance. The opportunities to acquire many of these skills dwindle as time moves on until it becomes impossible, both from a career standpoint and physically. These opportunities make you a LOT more competitive. Believe it or not, things like going to a little three-week course on gravity earns you a lot more respect simply because only about 10 percent or less of troops ever get to go.

Another benefit is getting your choice of assignment. The additional skill sets you gain when you earn a qualification often have nothing to do with your primary job, so you might feel tempted to ignore the offers to attend. However, if you want more of a say in where you want to be stationed, they provide you with that. You can increase your chances of getting assigned somewhere desirable (Italy, for instance), if you can exit an aircraft in flight. So when they offer to send you to Airborne School, go.

The military, of course, is a team. And succeeding in it is all about contributing to that team. But you should also find ways to positively differentiate yourself from the mob. Start planning for how to do so now, because when the promotion board comes and they look at the photo in your packet, those shiny badges and awards will make a positive impact. No ASI (Additional Skill Identifier) in your file will ever hurt you, but not having one might very well put you at a disadvantage.

And one last bit of advice? This is by far the most important thing you will read here today: LISTEN TO OLD SOLDIERS. We’ve been exactly where you are. This is a tremendously rewarding path, but one fraught with many dangers and pitfalls — professional, emotional, and physical alike. From a mile away we can see you walking into mistakes we ourselves have made or have seen others make. When you screw up (and trust me, you will), it’s either because you didn’t ask us or you didn’t listen to us. Those are the only two explanations possible, because there’s really nothing truly new in this game.



The author is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army. He writes here solely in a personal capacity.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army